Speak of great blockbuster exhibits at the Philadelphia Museum of Art — this is all part of procrastinating on writing my story on Cezanne and Beyond, to open there this Friday — remember the great Frida Kahlo exhibit there last spring? It was so exciting to see her iconic images in person — though I was surprised at how small they were, since they’re overblown in my mind. Here’s what I wrote about that exhibit in April:
SEVERAL years ago, it was Salvador Dali’s wily waxen whiskers that could be seen all over the City of Brotherly Love, calling attention to the blockbuster exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This year, it’s the unibrow of Frida Kahlo, like the wings of a crow hovering over almond-shaped eyes, dominating the cityscape.
From Princeton, the first sighting is on a large billboard on Route 95, just before the exit for the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Swaying high above the museum’s grand front steps is a flag of one of her self-portraits, and, of course, the jewelry, postcards and ephemera sold in the gift shop salute the pop star of Mexican art. Even before the 2002 movie starring Salma Hayek, Frida Kahlo was a legend of our times, destined to newfound stardom at the height of the feminist art movement.
The exhibit marks the 100th anniversary of her birth. Like Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, she has enough household recognition to be referred to by first name alone. And because of her legendary status, it is somewhat surprising to see her familiar images on canvases that are merely life size.
Larger than life was muralist Diego Rivera, her on-and-off-again husband, the most famous artist in Mexico in his time. When they first wed, in 1931, she painted “Frieda and Diego Rivera,” in which his feet are about eight times the size of hers. In fact hers are so tiny, they look as if they were bound, symbolic of her role as the dutiful wife. He holds the palette and paint brushes, and she is bejeweled and wrapped with a red fringed shawl.
Frida wore indigenous Mexican and Tehuana costumes both to please her husband and to conceal her right leg that had withered from childhood polio and injuries sustained in a near-fatal streetcar accident in 1925. It was also a political statement, showing her pride in Mexican culture. Of mixed heritage – her father emigrated from Germany and her mother was Mexican Indian – she aligned herself with Mexican peasants even though she was raised in privilege.
Her father, a photographer, brought her along on shoots and allowed her to retouch his work in the studio. Frida was at ease before the camera, and brought this same sense of poise to her numerous self-portraits. She had planned to be a doctor before a metal handrail on a bus impaled her abdomen when she was 18. Never without pain throughout her life, she started painting while recovering from the accident.
Because of her medical problems, Kahlo was unable to bear children, and instead surrounded herself with a menagerie of animals and tropical birds. “These were her surrogate children and she adored them,” says the museum’s Modern Art Curator Michael Taylor.
In addition to the 42 paintings – some never seen before in the U.S., and some never exhibited at all – on view through May 18, there are 118 photographs from Kahlo’s personal collection by such pre-eminent photographers as Gisele Freund, Tina Modotti and Nickolas Muray, as well as Guillermo Kahlo, her father. It is always interesting to see an artist’s setting and understand how it is interpreted in the artwork.
Here are the characters, famous on her colorful canvases, in black-and-white reality. Here is the proof that Frida’s folkloric garb was every bit as exotic as in her paintings. There is a photo of the Rockefeller Center mural painted by Rivera that Rockefeller ultimately ordered destroyed because of its communist leanings, and photos of the Kahlo/Rivera table, set with tropical fruits in colorful patterned pottery (also available in the gift shop).
There is Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky and Rivera in 1938, a year after Rivera had secured asylum for him in Mexico, and Andre Breton with Frida at the Beachcomber restaurant in New York City, looking like an Indian princess in shawl, headdress and Tehuana dress.
What is especially striking is how Frida looks so like Frida Kahlo, with her large hoop earrings, famously chunky beaded chokers, rings on every finger and the ever iconic unibrow. Sometimes she wears flowers in her hair and around her neck, just like in the paintings.
“The photos show you how Frida constructed Frida,” says Mr. Taylor. In her paintings, “she wanted you to see what she went through. She took on the trials and tribulations of the word, like an updated Christian martyr, although she was not religious. She saw this as a sign of hope. Her strength meant she could go on, and you admire her.”
Seeing in black and white the enormous man Rivera was, with unkempt hair, rotten teeth and a mammoth cigar clamped in his full lips – you can practically smell the scoundrel – it’s hard to understand why she put up with his philandering. His dalliances included Frida’s sister, Cristina, after which Kahlo cut off her hair and stopped wearing her Tehuana dress.
She left Rivera for a year but continued to paint because she felt “murdered by life” and expressed her bloody paintings now beyond the canvas and onto the frames. “She was pretty angry,” says Hayden Herrera, the renowned Kahlo scholar and biographer who co-curated this exhibit with Elizabeth Carpenter, associate curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where it originated. But after a year, Kahlo forgave Rivera and wrote a letter stating that she loved him more than she loved herself.
“He was charming but an egomaniac,” says Ms. Herrera. “It was a difficult but wonderful marriage.” There was a sort of consensus that it was an open marriage, but the vagaries of it led to pain and heartache, and the couple divorced and remarried twice.
Kahlo and Rivera were part of a vibrant community of Mexican artists living in revolutionary times. Her childhood polio led to her sense of feeling different, and she liked to distinguish herself, which made her right at home among artists. When she was sick, Rivera would come and “dance like a bear,” says Ms. Hererra. “He brought movies and tequila. He loved women’s minds and he was fun. Rivera had a zest for life and sardonic humor that she loved, and he was an art star.”
In her lifetime, Kahlo was known more for being Diego Rivera’s wife, according to Ms. Hererra. “People thought she was peculiar – for example, when she had a show in Mexico City in 1953 and had her hospital bed brought in to receive people – and they thought her paintings were too crazy.” Meanwhile, “Rivera thought she was proof of the Mexican Renaissance. He supported and encouraged her in her artwork, and she called him the architect of her life.”
Singer-songwriter and poet Patti Smith said of the couple: “The devotion they had toward each other reaffirmed each of them. They needed each other and trusted each other as artists,” comparing it to her own relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
One hand-colored gelatin silver print on postcard stock shows the couple in full regalia at a fair. It looks like one of those cardboard setups where you poke your head through the holes and get your picture taken so you can look like Frida and Diego.
Of course the photos also depict some of the pain and hardship that were a part of the glamorous life she led. There are photos of her in traction, and there’s one by Gisele Freund of Frida and her doctor in her studio at the Blue House. She is seated in a wheelchair alongside a painting of herself in a wheelchair and a painting of the doctor on an easel within the painting.
Julien Levy, who ran a Surrealist gallery in New York, gave her her first solo exhibition in the U.S. Levy, himself a photographer, photographed her nude, untangling her complicated network of braids. He was one of the many lovers she took as a way of retaliating against Rivera’s infidelity, along with Trotsky and sculptor Isamu Noguchi.
What makes Kahlo so contemporary, says Ms. Carpenter, was “her chutzpah of using the body to explore gender identity and sexual issues. These are very contemporary issues artists continue to work with. Kiki Smith said Kahlo painted the messiness of life: tears, milk, blood and bodily fluids. She painted the inside as well as the outside.”
Kahlo was mostly self-taught and extremely knowledgeable about European and Mexican art. She and Rivera collected pre-Columbian art and ex-votos – paintings depicting persons afflicted with illness or injury being saved by a holy redeemer – on tin, and she adopted the naive style of these. “She could have painted realistically but this was a nod to her nationality and indigenous Mexican culture,” says Ms. Carpenter.
When Rivera was commissioned by Edsel Ford to create a series of murals on the subject of modern industry for the Detroit Institute of Arts, Kahlo suffered a miscarriage. She painted her experience at the Henry Ford Hospital, and it is the first time in the history of art that a miscarriage, and its pain and suffering, were depicted on canvas. Done in the spirit of ex-voto paintings – it was Rivera who suggested she paint on metal panels – it shows her lying naked on her hospital bed in a pool of blood. Red ribbons of veins tether her to an anatomical model of the spine and female reproductive system; a male fetus; and a snail that represents the slowness of miscarriage. There is also an orchid, a symbol of fertility and an aphrodisiac, and the pelvic bones that couldn’t carry her baby son to term.
“The theme of loneliness underlies many of the self-portraits, and is her way of dealing with pain, like an exorcism,” says Ms. Herrera.
When Surrealist poet Andre Breton came to Mexico in 1938, he proclaimed Kahlo a self-invented Surrealist. She responded: “I never knew I was a Surrealist until Andre Breton came to Mexico and told me I was. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head, without any consideration.”
She projected her obsession with fertility onto flowers, transforming them into genitalia, and was fascinated by the unity of all things – humans, plants, animals, the sun, earth and moon and the universe, and painted hybrids of plant and animal forms.